A review of a book about evangelical Christians

April 30, 2012 • 3:30 am

Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review has a review by Molly Worthen, a writer and professor of religious history, on When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, by Tanya Luhrman, a psychological anthropologist who has also written on psychiatry.

Lurhman studied one evangelical and charismatic sect (the Vineyard Christian Fellowship) for four years, and though I won’t be reading the book, two paragraphs of Worthen’s review are worth noting:

If evangelicals are expert at conjuring God, they are just as good at dealing with disappointment when God fails to show up. When his presence fades or he fails to answer a prayer, it means God has decided that your faith is so strong, you don’t need constant proof. “The concept of spiritual maturity allows people to reinterpret a disappointment as, in effect, a promotion,” Luhrmann explains. This is not merely a grand exercise in self-­delusion. Luhrmann’s subjects are aware of their minds at work. They acknowledge the elements of “pretend” in imagining God as an invisible friend sitting at the kitchen table. Vineyard teaching is clear that the Christian life requires mastering a set of mental tools. Luhrmann’s account, she says, “is fully compatible with both secular and supernaturalist understandings of God. To a believer, this account of absorption speaks to the problem of why, if God is always speaking, not everyone can hear. . . . To a skeptic, it explains why the believer heard a thought in the mind as if it were external.”

A few plaints: how is this not an exercise in self-delusion? And I’m not sure what Worthen means by “compatibility with a skeptic’s secular understanding of God.” Is that like a secular understanding of Zeus? Perhaps she means that if you think God spoke to you, and that’s a result of “mastering a set of mental tools,” then your idea of God comes from brainwashing.  Finally, why does “being aware of your mind at work” preclude you from being deluded?

Worthen writes like a believer in belief, which is buttressed by the last paragraph of her review (my emphasis):

All religion is an affair of both the head and the heart. Luhrmann goes too far in suggesting that evangelicalism is all feeling and no dogma: in her telling, the heart has wholly conquered the head. We cannot account for evangelicals’ history or their role in politics without paying attention to the substance of their beliefs and the social and scientific lessons their communities teach them to draw from the Bible — lessons reinforced, perhaps, by the sound of God’s voice that they discern in their own ears. But Luhrmann has helped to explain something else: why the carefully reasoned arguments that the “new atheist” writers mount against religion often fall flat. The most convincing “proof” of religion is not scientific but psychological. There is no way to undo the conviction of believers that God himself told them he is real and his story is true.

Of course. Does anyone doubt that the convictions of faith are often based not on scientific evidence but revelation, and that revelation is largely (but not totally) impervious to reason? This is why most of us aim our attacks on religion not on evangelicals, or the already committed, but those with doubts, those on the fence, or young people. The last sentence in the paragraph above, by the way, is a pithy statement of why science and faith are incompatible.

In the end, all of it—including the sophisticated lucubrations of theologians who spend their time justifying what they want to be true—comes down to revelation, which I’ll define in Feynman’s words as “the ultimate way of fooling yourself.” Or, even simpler: “It’s true because I want it to be true.”

48 thoughts on “A review of a book about evangelical Christians

  1. If evangelicals are expert at conjuring God, they are just as good at dealing with disappointment when God fails to show up.

    They’d have to be wouldn’t they? In fact I should think this is the prime skill needed to maintain a delusion. Without a method of rationalising failure you wouldn’t be deluded for long, the whole thing wouldn’t last longer than the first failed prayer.

    1. And our job’s to show the weakness of their rationalizing. I once had a guy tell me I made his “walk with the Lord” more difficult. I took that to mean I was doing things right and making it more difficult for him to rationalize to himself his unreasonable ideas about God and Jesus.

    2. At last, a subject on this blog at which I’m (unfortunately) an effin’ expert, and have something to add (though I must admit, I’d rather be learning more about evolution).

      How many times in my 23 years as a christian did I hear this: “God always answers prayer. Sometimes ‘yes,’ sometimes ‘no,’ sometimes ‘wait.'” Way too many. The hypothesis is unfalsifiable! (See Jerry, I read what you write). So yes, the self-delusional quotient is very high (that it eventually got too high for emotional stability is what drove me out of the religion for good). Furthermore, a really obscure verse, 2 Chron. 32:31b, “God left him alone only to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart” can be invoked if one is *really* spiritual, as hinted at in the review above.

      Of course, since one is not allowed to doubt, this can’t be discussed honestly or out loud–which may be a good thing, as it may help to drive others out of the religion.

  2. The god believers are not genuinely interested in evidence or reason: for they: ‘…look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.’ (Corinthians 4:18) Thus, trying to reason with them, trying to use evidence is pointless; the only effective response is ridicule of their ridiculous and barbarous truth claims.

    1. Amen.

      But one addendum. Your statement that “The god believers are not genuinely interested in evidence or reason” is a gross understatement. These people are contemptuous of evidence, logic or reason. All of these things, in their view, are the workings of Satan.

      1. That’s a reasonable attitude on the fundies’ part. If anything is contra religion, it has to be the work of Satan.

        Perfectly logical, no?

    2. (Imagine the next line enclosed in “pedantry” tags)
      It’s 2 Cor. 4:18.

      Horrifically useful verse for ignoring facts and evidence, and holding on to what one wants to believe. If I’m ever invited back to my church to do a series of lessons (ha ha), I’d like to do one on the 10 most destructive verses in the bible; this would certainly be one of them.

      Of course, since the goddists tend to claim that evolution is unobservable, maybe that should count as evidence it its favor…

  3. When his presence fades or he fails to answer a prayer, it means God has decided that your faith is so strong, you don’t need constant proof.

    So he shows up and answers atheists’ prayers all the time?

    1. No, you have to have faith precisely the size of a mustard seed. Any smaller, you don’t have enough faith. Any larger, you don’t need to have your prayer answered.

      1. Really just a “moving the goal posts” fallacy.

        It’s also subjective to a test I like to do on claims called the elven rain switch (I just named it that because I haven’t heard of it called something else.) If you can take a claim and apply it to something ridiculous that you make up right there and it’s still as valid as the original claim, then you should probably reject that claim.

        So here, “When [the elves’] presence fades or [the elves] fail to answer a prayer, it means [the elves have] decided that your faith is so strong, you don’t need constant proof.”

        Got the name from the statement, “If you think elves cause the rain, then you’ll see rain as proof of elves,” because this is applying that test to this type of argument.

  4. How is this not an exercise in self-delusion?

    You must be reading that differently from me. When the reviewer writes “This is not merely a grand exercise in self-­delusion,” I see that as agreeing that there is self-delusion.

    1. The key word then being “merely” = it’s self-delusion plus something else. Still mostly delusion, IMO.

  5. I’m reminded of Sam Harris paraphrased as the following: if a guy told you that when he says a few special words over his pancakes at breakfast, they transform in to the body of Elvis Presley, you’d have him committed.

  6. “If evangelicals are expert at conjuring God, they are just as good at dealing with disappointment when God fails to show up. When his presence fades or he fails to answer a prayer, it means God has decided that your faith is so strong, you don’t need constant proof.”
    Another ‘theory’ that explains everything and so nothing?

  7. I remember being very young and arguing with my mother about religious claims. It’s essentially impossible to grow up in a fundamentalist Christian (Southern Baptist) family and not develop delusional coping mechanisms (if nothing but faking belief and saying the appropriate things) simply to survive the constant onslaught and not be outcast in one’s own family and or very small town.

    1. Indeed. I think the social pressure should not be underestimated, and along with it how many people are faking belief (including trying to fake it to themselves, which *is* different than actually believing it). When you are faking it, even to yourself, rational arguments still make their way into your mind. You’re bothered by it. It causes constant discomfort. As a result, I think trying to reason with people who appear to believe is not as pointless as JC suggests. Many of them just need the confidence to act on what they already know. Sure, many really deeply believe it and are beyond reasoning with. Many others, though, are extra-defensive precisely because they know, in their gut, that they haven’t a leg to stand on. They are afraid, afraid of the change, afraid of admitting that are, gasp, an atheist, this thing they have been told all their life is the worst kind of thing one can be. They are afraid of the reaction (both seen and behind their back) of friends and family. It really is similar to being gay, with the self-denial, being in the closet, deciding to come out, and so on. I’m not sure what helps that process along, for the individual and as a society, but it always sounds similar to the closet-atheist situation that so many are in.

      1. I should add another dynamic that is not often talked about but which is prominent in my own case. Almost everyone I know outside my workplace is an evangelical Christian, both because of my wife being a Christian still (though I think in the fake-to-herself sense) and because of my history with that group. I find it very hard to tell people what I know, to point out the glaring flaws in their claims, because they find it so disturbing. Otherwise happy people can be sent into quite a funk when you pierce their delusion. On a social level,this is a good thing. Delusion is bad for society. But on a personal level, my friends are functional and happy enough. It’s hard to break bad news to them when you’r not sure that they, personally, will be happier or better off after they receive it. This is another side of social pressure, the simple desire not to rock the boat, not to make other people feel uncomfortable or bad.

        1. I shouldn’t say “bad news”, it’s not actually bad news. That’s just how it’s perceived to them: “Bad news, dude. Your god is imaginary.”

        2. I feel your pain. I also know almost exclusively evangelicals (though I’ve made a few friends since I apostasized), for the same reason you do, but my wife is still an active, committed christian, a YEC, and not interested in science (which is not to say that she is not a wonderful person). We have a don’t ask don’t tell policy–I pretend not to see the things she presents to little kids at church; she pretends not to see all the books on atheism and evolution that I have in plain sight on the bookshelves; both of us go out of our way not to antagonize the other.

          As for how to respond, I never initiate a conversation. If, however, someone approaches me with “you really ought to come back,” I always respond in writing with my reasons for not doing as they suggest, and to this day have yet to receive even one response.

          1. I continue to go to church with my wife. I tried not going for about one year, but it made both of us less happy. I enjoy just getting out and seeing people, even deluded people. I just keep a low profile, refuse to say prayers or participate in other ways that would indicate actual belief. When it has come up, which it does occasionally but not often, I admit my non-belief. As a small concession to the politics, I call myself an agnostic, though that is really too weak. It makes people infinitely happier, though. We sometimes go to a class and that is frustrating. At most places, I know the most Bible by far, both by dent of my very fundamentalist background (we go to more liberal churches now, which also makes it less painful), and more so because I read so much as I left the faith. This puts me in the often awkward position of being the person in a class who knows the answers, the Bible answers, and can say the most about whatever topic is at hand. And, of course, I know all the ways it’s complete nonsense. I occasionally consider pointing out the nonsense, and sometimes I do but from an “orthodox” standpoint (someone says that God controls everything that happens, I point out verses that say he doesn’t). But I refrain from being a damp rag. It seems rude to do so. They didn’t come to church to be challenged but to be surrounded by people who will make them feel better about it all.

            My wife is fully aware of my views. There were tears long ago. For probably ten years we operated in a mode of detente, of don’t-ask-don’t-tell as you say. It is a little impossible for me, so everything I might have said about belief in one long day of talking about it has nonetheless trickled out and she’s absorbed it on the slow schedule. At this point I think my wife would confess that she is probably kidding herself. She was always a little flexible on YEC. That was the default, but she wasn’t rigid about it. She took a geology class in college, and she accepts that the earth is old. After years of kind of being circumspect about it, I can now talk to her about evolution fairly plainly, like one might talk to Francis Collins at least. She seems to accept it, but keep it locked off from her religious thinking.

            There are a lot of social dynamics in play beyond just the clash of ideas.

  8. The interesting thing to me is how well the Christian church prepares you for time when God is not answering. I can remember multiple sermons where I would hear “sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want and that is a really good thing.”

    The Christian mind then gets to have it both ways. God answers your prayer, “Halleluiah, God is good.” God doesn’t answer your prayer, “Halleluiah, God is good.”

    I look back in hindsight and think how could I fall for that? All I can say in my defense is that when I wanted it to be true I could rationalize it my own mind and make it true.

    1. As in Abbotsford, BC, when the floor of a fundie church collapsed into the basement during some kind of rip-snortin’ shebang: instead of “oh, yuck, Dog is punishing us” the response was “no one got injured, it’s a miracle, Dog loves us.”

      They don’t just pick and choose which bibbble verses to emphasize, but also which phenomena to attribute to Dog, Ceiling Cat, the FSM, or the fairies at the bottom of the garden.

      Clearly, the church was

      (a) improperly designed; or
      (b) improperly constructed; or
      (c) had more people in it than designed for.

      The event was due to human stupidity, dishonesty, or inattention, and it’s sheer luck no one got hurt.

      Their reasoning seems to be “if we can think up some cockamamie reason to view an event as good, it’s Dog’s doing. If it’s something unquestionably bad, Dog had nothing to do with it.”

      1. Saw a mention of this event the other day, and shortly afterwards read in Hume’s ‘History of England’:

        In one synod, Dunstan, finding the majority of votes against him, rose up and informed the audience, that he had that instant received an immediate revelation in behalf of the monks: the assembly was so astonished at this intelligence, or probably so overawed by the populace, that they proceeded no farther in their deliberations. In another synod, a voice issued from the crucifix, and informed the members that the establishment of the monks was founded on the will of Heaven, and could not be opposed without impiety. But the miracle performed in the third synod was still more alarming: the floor of the hall in which the assembly met sunk of a sudden and a great number of the members were either bruised or killed by the fall. It was remarked, that Dunstan had that day prevented the king from attending the synod, and that the beam, on which his own chair stood, was the only one that did not sink under the weight of the assembly. But these circumstances, instead of begetting any suspicion of contrivance, were regarded as the surest proof of the immediate interposition of Providence in behalf of those favourites of Heaven.

        History doesn’t exactly repeat, but it rhymes.

  9. The most convincing “proof” of religion is not scientific but psychological. There is no way to undo the conviction of believers that God himself told them he is real and his story is true.

    True. Even I figured this out.

    1. All faith claims reduce down to “voices in someone’s head”. That is all they are.

    There is a huge problem here.

    2. The “voices in heads” gods all say different things to different people.

    To a creationist, god says evolution is a satanic plot. To a Moslem suicide bomber, god says to drive that car packed with explosives into a crowd and blow it up and kill a few dozen people. To fundie xian leaders god tells them he wants their followers to send them lots of money and their cutest teenage boys and girls. God told Joseph Smith he wanted him to have lots of wives and sex.

    The “voices in the head” god hates what you hate and wants you to have what you want. It’s your sockpuppet.

    1. The great science fiction and fantasy author, Jack Vance, comments on this aspect of religion in one of his novels, as a group of passengers on a ship discuss their religious beliefs. The protagonist, when asked his opinion…

      “The man and his religion are one and the same thing. The unknown exists. Each man projects on the blankness the shape of his own particular world-view. He endows his creation with his personal volitions and attitudes. The religious man stating his case is in essence explaining himself. When a fanatic is contradicted he feels a threat to his own existence; he reacts violently.”

      And the atheist?

      “He projects no image upon the blank whatever. The cosmic mysteries he accepts as things in themselves; he feels no need to hang a more or less human mask upon them. Otherwise, the correlation between a man and the shape into which he molds the unknown for greater ease of manipulation is exact.”

      In the “The Wankh” (#2 of the “Planet of Adventure” tetralogy) Tor omnibus ed. p. 182

      1. Ah, Jack Vance–the man is wonderful. Here are some of his other barbs directed at religion (these are all on his Wikiquote page, most of which is my doing):

        “You must save yourselves,” Rogol Domedonfors told them. “You have ignored the ancient wisdom, you have been too indolent to learn, you have sought easy complacence from religion, rather than facing manfully to the world.”

        “Down we go,” said Paddy. “Now pray to Saint Anthony if you be a good Catholic—”
        “I’m not,” snapped Fay, “and if you’ll give more mind to the boat and less to religion we’ll gain by it.”

        “It sees that you are wrong, that you are guided by faith indeed.”
        The Demie fell silent. His face seemed to stiffen.
        “Are these not facts?” asked Joaz. “How do you reconcile them with your faith?
        “The Demie said mildly, “Facts can never be reconciled with faith.”

        How to know, oh how to know! All is relative ease and facility in orthodoxy, yet how can it be denied that good is in itself undeniable? Absolutes are the most uncertain of all formulations, while the uncertainties are the most real…

  10. “Revelation” is nothing more than extremely conceited claims and warm fuzzy feelings — of the moment.

    Sure, this so called god talked to just you. Yeah, suuuure.

  11. Ah the delusions, I remember then well. For the longest time I never could understand why my grandfather never walked after being shot, or why my grandmother developed MS and lost the ability to walk. All the prayers in the world never made any difference, of course we just assumed that God has a reason and plan for these things, gods ways were higher and above our ways, who were we mere humans to question a the infinite wisdom of god?

    On the flip side now that I don’t believe the world makes perfect sense and I no longer have to ask why.

  12. “All religion is an affair of both the head and the heart. Luhrmann goes too far in suggesting that evangelicalism is all feeling and no dogma: in her telling, the heart has wholly conquered the head. ”

    I also think the reviewer of the book is wrong on this fact, he seems to be confusing traditional evangelical Christianity with the Vineyard charismatic version the book is talking about. From my Word of Faith fundie days, this statement is completely true, we didn’t care one bit about old dogmas or creeds, but instead it was about listening to the spirit and being lead that way. Furthermore things like context in the bible were irrelevant, often we knew hundreds of bible verses but zero context such as to whom the verses were written or the verses before or after our favorite ones.

  13. “You can’t reason people out of religion. They didn’t reason their way into it to begin with.”

    I sent a pass phrase out to all possible omniscient gods. Every time I hear a preacher say he has a message from god just for me, that I need to hear, I listen carefully for my pass phrase. So far, not even the omnipotent gods have ever caused one of these prophets to say it.

    I wonder why?

  14. I heard the first 75 percent of an interview with Prof. Luhrman on NPR’s Fresh Air earlier this month. She came pretty close to saying that the people in this church teach themselves to turn the pretense of god’s voice in their heads into an “actual” voice and actual conversations. I sensed that Dr. Luhrman’s attachment to cultural relativism (the first and last refuge of many an anthropologist) prevented her from saying, simply and directly, that of course these churchgoers were engaging in self-delusion. Of course, Terry Gross did not ask her guest this obvious question.

  15. [blockquote]
    But Luhrmann has helped to explain something else: why the carefully reasoned arguments that the “new atheist” writers mount against religion often fall flat. The most convincing “proof” of religion is not scientific but psychological. There is no way to undo the conviction of believers that God himself told them he is real and his story is true.

    I don’t know if I’d call Worthen a believer in belief, after all, she referred to “New Atheist” arguments as “carefully reasoned” and not “shrill and strident” 🙂 Based on some of the soft jabs sprinkled throughout her article, I’d say the rough draft probably contained at least one reference to guano induced mental instability. What Luhrmann may have uncovered (though in a mush-brained, feel-good way) is the actual mechanism these churches use to implant not only the emotional buzz that comes along with advanced make-believe, but the addiction that keeps them coming back for more and thereby exhibiting other symptoms of that addiction such as irrational defense of their fix and denial that it is anything but real. At the risk of exhibiting complete ignorance on the subject, I’d say Oxytocin, which is likely the chemical released when these people turn on their God-bot, and thus creates a near chemical-dependency. I’m sure they can’t get quite the same reaction on their own, which is why on Sunday’s they all get together to “praise the Lard”, since most of these affects are likely amplified hypnogogically. At this point a pastor, priest, or Rabbi, minister, seminar leader, magician/mentalist can offer suggestions to their flock which might lock in with this experience and create a strong bias against contradictory information or counter-evidence for whatever the leader says. If the leader says, while his flock is nearly orgasmic with Goddiness, that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, then I would guess this information could be stapled in their brain to the feeling induced by this form of mental masturbation. Imagine then if their leader said that God hated gays, reinforced this with the inerrant word of the Oxytocin god, along with the flocks own inherent tendency to discriminate against “others”. This is obviously a blatant manipulation of suggestive human nature, yet faithiests only point to those examples where the outcome is positive. Imagine how easy it is for an otherwise rational human being to succumb to this trickery if they were raised in a society where the priest or pastor was a symbol of trust and wisdom, and where “good” people attended church on Sundays. This could also account for the greater success of Pentecostalism versus, say, Catholicism which, traditionally (though I’ve been to more modern services where the priest tries to be more energetic) is a more somber affair and relies on instilled tradition rather than active expressions of faith. And, if my Mr. Bean studies of England are of any value, Anglican ceremonies also lack this energy, and could account for the high number of Atheists in that country.

    What those of Luhrmann’s ilk fail to identify, is exactly how these “mental tools” mimic the trade of the con-man. How the faithful can be just as aptly labelled “sucker” or “mark”. How deep do we reach into our pockets when our brains are distracted by such… rapture. I believe this is also why “Love” is so usurped by these religions, because the chemical effect is so much the same. How foolish are we when we are in love?

    Where religion can no longer work strictly on authority, it embraces emotional manipulation. I think more research on this point needs to be done.

  16. This piece about the book left me wondering if Stanford considers this sort of thing science, maybe it would be better off concentrating on football. Note that it includes a wooful video featuring Luhrmann. Little kids have imaginary friends they talk to as well, but Luhrmann doesn’t make the comparison. I guess it wouldn’t be scientific to do that, although she seems very comfortable with the idea that it is good for adults to have these imaginary chats with god.

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